Paul Bowles was born to Rena Winnewisser Bowles, a homemaker, and Claude Dietz Bowles, a dentist, on December 30, 1910, in the borough of Queens, New York City. His father was, as Bowles later recalled, a bad-tempered man, easily given to child beatings to enforce his will. Perhaps it was fortunate, then, that Paul’s father was so addicted to his golf game that he was away from home on weekends whenever the weather permitted. Rena Bowles excused her husband’s child abuse, but she showered attention on her son, devoting considerable time to reading poetry and playing music for him. She realized Paul had artistic proclivities and wanted to encourage them.
Like many creative young people who are abused, however, Paul retreated into himself, refusing to socialize with other children and, out of spite, beating weaker classmates symbolically to get revenge on those who beat him at school. His life was hellish, but it did encourage him to develop his creative powers.
After finishing secondary school in New York in 1928, he attended New York’s School of Design and Liberal Arts for a matter of months, then went on to the University of Virginia; he stayed there only six months, however, before leaving for Paris in 1929. He went to Paris at the behest of famous composer Aaron Copland, and in Paris he discovered not only what pursuits he would follow but also where he would spend most of the remainder of his life: in Morocco. It would take another trip home to New York, then another semester of studies at the University of Virginia before he would become a true expatriate. The restless young man traveled to Berlin in 1931 and 1932, where he studied music under another great composer, Virgil Thomson.
Nevertheless, it was Bowles’s return to Paris in 1933 (he would stay there for a year) that gave him his twin missions in life: He would compose serious music and he would write. While he was there, either Gertrude Stein, American expatriate novelist, or her lover, Alice B. Toklas (the story varies), advised him to find the perpetual summer weather he craved as well as the splendid isolation from Western ways he also sought by moving to Morocco. In 1937, he turned to writing music in Tangier, Morocco, a small but highly international city across from Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Although he turned his attention to composing scores for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke...
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Paul Bowles is an innovator of the first order, whose masterful works deserve far more critical attention than has been given them. This slighting of Bowles, as some critics suggest, may be attributable to his strong anti-American bias, to his choice of locales (“too foreign,” some say), or to his pessimistic view of human nature and human destiny. His works, while difficult and painful to read at times, offer readers a window on a strange, bizarre world that no other writer has offered.
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Paul Frederick Bowles’s life spans much of the twentieth century, but the events that dominated the lives of his contemporaries in the United States had little effect on him. After attending the University of Virginia, Bowles went to Europe, where his literary career began with the publication of some youthful poems in the journal Transitions. During the 1930’s, Bowles drifted from New York to Berlin, Paris, and Mexico. In New York and Berlin, he studied music with Aaron Copland. His musical career was furthered in Paris, where he studied with Virgil Thomson. Also in Paris, Bowles met Gertrude Stein, to whom he attributed the initial impetus for his subsequent writing career. Stein criticized his poetry and suggested that he devote himself to music instead, but she also urged him to go to Morocco. He took her advice, and eventually Morocco became his permanent home.
In 1938, Bowles married Jane Auer (Jane Bowles), a playwright and novelist. They traveled to diverse places such as Mexico, Central America, and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), journeys that Bowles recalls in his travel essays, collected in Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue (1963). During the 1940’s, Bowles composed music for ballet and opera (The Wind Remains), as well as incidental music for drama, including Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944). When Jane Bowles was working on her novel Two Serious Ladies (1943),...
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